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Stir-fried ass, bad wine, and a total eclipse in Central Asia

Bottoms Up

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Before the Olympics started, Chinese authorities shut down the dog restaurants in Beijing, but that didn't stop me from scoring a great piece of ass in Dunhuang, western China. Stir-fried with carrots and peppers, the donkey flesh tasted like beef, only leaner.

I'm in central Central Asia, smack in the middle of the world's largest continent, and as far from an ocean as you can get. I've joined a group of Beijing-based astronomers that's come west to watch the August 1 solar eclipse, which, according to scientists, should be optimally observed from near the village of Yiwu in Xinjiang, China's most remote province.

North of Tibet, west of Mongolia, south of Russia, and east of Khazakstan, Xinjiang contains some of the world's largest deserts, including the Taklimakan, the Gurbantunggut, part of the Gobi, as well as some of the world's highest mountains. The melting snow and glaciers of these ranges create lush valleys and oases where melons, fruit trees, grapes, and cotton are grown in this otherwise desolate landscape.

This is Uyghur (pronounced wee-ger) country, home to Arab-speaking Muslims of Turkic descent who wear square skullcaps, prepare some of the tastiest lamb dishes I've ever eaten, and still resent being annexed by China.

As is the case in Tibet, China's majority Han population has immigrated to Xinjiang in droves, making a minority of the region's original inhabitants. Beijing has an enormous military presence here as well, in part to manage the stirrings of uprising among a Uyghur separatist movement. There are rumors of Al Qaeda cells taking root here, but my experiences with the Uyghur have been only positive. Indeed, my keyboard gets a drool bath at the memory of Uyghur roast lamb, served alongside little piles of cumin and chili powder.

Being a fan of red wine with my red meat, I was excited to learn that this area, of similar latitude to France's Bordeaux region, is said to produce some excellent wines. I was not, unfortunately, able to confirm this, even after buying five different bottles.

Another Uyghur specialty is lamian, or pulled noodles, which are cut from a piece of dough that's kneaded, slammed, twisted, pounded, and pulled into a very long noodle. Good pulled noodles have a soft yet firm and chewy texture that holds up even in soup, in which they're often served. The more pulls, the thinner the noodle, which is then cut into manageable lengths. The process takes just a few minutes in the hands of an experienced noodle-puller, who, after 12 pulls, holds 4,096 strands of thin, so-called Dragon's Hair noodles between his or her outstretched arms. Thirty more pulls, if it were possible, would produce noodles an atom's width.

The day I ate stir-fried ass had been otherwise spent checking out the Mogao Grottoes, hundreds of caves full of remarkably well-preserved Buddhist treasures and art that had been excavated from beneath the advancing sand dunes of the Kumtag desert. In addition to the ass, we had fried chicken — head included — and qing jiao tu dou si, a dish of shredded potatoes marinated in chili vinegar and briefly fried. Our driver nibbled politely at these offerings and then ordered a bowl of thick lamian (nine or 10 pulls, I'd estimate) with green pepper and tomato sauce, and made quick work of his bowl, slurping loudly.

On August 1 we made our way toward Yiwu for the eclipse. The road featured a uniformed soldier stationed about every kilometer, and twice we had to stop for bag searches due to Chinese fears of a Uyghur terrorist attack — especially now, while China is in the international spotlight.

Our bus was one of hundreds converging on Yiwu, and the scene was a bit surreal, a sort of Burning Man for nerds. Hundreds of astronomers from around the world were busily setting up their telescopes, cameras, and all manner of fancy gear. Thousands more were milling about the barren landscape, visiting a monumental Astroturf-lined plaza built for the occasion, and drinking lots of water in the 110-degree heat. Provoking even more sweat were a few puffy clouds. Though the sky was mostly clear, one small cloud could ruin the day by obscuring the two-minute eclipse.

About 10 minutes before the eclipse was to become total, a cloud moved in front of the sun, and the eclipse chasers chattered in disbelief. Oblivious to the drama, a Chinese television crew approached me for an interview, asking if I was satisfied with my eclipse experience here in Yiwu, and what I had eaten for lunch. Seriously.

"Garlic flowers with lamb and chili peppers," I said, "and I'd be satisfied with my experience if that cloud would go away."

Thousands of astronomers were moaning and shouting at the little cloud, begging, demanding, cursing, and otherwise bidding it farewell. And less than a minute before totality, the crescent sun slid into view.

The ambient light got dim, with the soft hue of sunset, and then disappeared altogether as the sun became a black disk surrounded by a ring of fire. The stars came out, the astronomers cheered, and two minutes of totality flashed by in an instant. When it was over, we basked in the afterglow and passed around a bottle of hot, mediocre, red wine.

Ari LeVaux is a food writer whose column "Flash in the Pan" appears in newspapers across the country.

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